Amanda Norman was first in line to get a meatball sub at Grace Marketplace.
The kitchen doors usually open around 5:30 p.m. on Wednesdays. Sometimes more than 100 residents wait outside for volunteers from Called to Action, a non-profit organization, to serve hot meals.
When Norman reaches the front of the line, she’s given a plate, a bun, and some meatballs. At the end, she gets a chocolate chip cookie.
She’s grateful for the volunteer’s time but wants more diversity in the meals, she said.
“I have diabetes,” Norman said. “And the meals they usually serve aren’t good for me.”
Norman’s wish for healthier meal choices may not be out of reach. To provide better meal diversity, Called to Action and the other organizations that serve food at Grace need a usable kitchen on location. As it stand, groups must prepare food off site somewhere and haul it to the residents.
On July 16, the Gainesville City Commission approved the maximum payment of $585,525 for Charles Perry Partners, a construction management company, to make improvements to the Empowerment Center, which is the 95 acres of land formally known as the Gainesville Correctional Institute.
The center, located at 2845 NE 39th Ave., is operated by the Alachua County Coalition for the Homeless and Hungry (ACCHH), more commonly referred to as Grace Marketplace. The approval provides the money to pay for new roofs and exterior paintings to make 10 campus buildings livable at the Empowerment Center.
It will also allow for the Empowerment Center’s kitchen, where Norman and the other Grace residents get most of their meals, to be renovated and filled with the necessary cooking equipment to serve meals regularly.
“(The kitchen’s) going to help (Called to Action) tremendously,” said Phil Koon, a Called to Action board member. “We won’t have to bring our own equipment and drag it out of the trailer.”
The non-profit was the first organization to feed the Grace community back in early 2014. Board members like Koon and Tim Moses prepare home-cooked meals every Wednesday and every other Sunday. Other organizations also provide home cooked meals for Grace such as Raise Up!, a local branch of Greenhouse Church.
Called to Action’s logo, an image of two bluish hands gripped together, is painted on the side of a large white trailer that sits outside the kitchen. It’s filled with cooking equipment the organization uses to prepare meals for Grace residents.
“Once they have a kitchen they don’t need us,” Moses said.
The group has been waiting for the kitchen for more than a year, he said. Once it is completed, their trailer can be used in other Gainesville locations to help needy individuals.
A fully functioning kitchen would be a sign that Grace is more self-sufficient and assistance is no longer needed, Moses said.
City Commissioner Randy Wells shared similar sentiments at the July 16 meeting.
“(The city) has depended on an enormous amount of community output,” Wells said. “Because there’s not a fully functioning kitchen, their task has been doubled.”
The kitchen, he said, will make it easier for organizations to help people at Grace Marketplace. Currently, if any group wants to serve food to residents, they have to prepare meals off-site, haul the equipment and food to Grace, and then set everything up.
The effort makes it more difficult for smaller charity organizations to help the community.
During the monthly city commission meeting, some Gainesville residents argued the money necessary to improve Grace Marketplace and the Empowerment Center is wasted if Dignity Village, a local homeless camp near Grace, is uncontrollable.
Mayor Ed Braddy said he was reluctant to invest further in the Grace Marketplace project before getting the chaos in Dignity Village under control.
Brady highlighted an example of such chaos that occurred on July 13. Two Gainesville police officers were injured while arresting a convicted felon with a drug warrant at Dignity Village, according to a Gainesville Police Department press release.
Theresa Lowe, the executive director of Grace Marketplace, doesn’t think investing in the Empowerment Center should be put off until Dignity Village is brought under control.
“We shouldn’t be penalized because of the lack of control (the city) has over Dignity village,” Lowe said. “It hurts our ability to help the community.”
She said Grace has been a victim of its own success. The homeless were encouraged to come to Dignity so they could benefit from the services offered by the client advocates who work at Grace.
Other client advocates like Jeff Gruver, think the investment in Grace is well worth the money. He thinks that when the kitchen renovations provide access to professional cooking equipment, Grace Marketplace will be able to offer more options and flexibility when serving residents.
“I’m so excited,” Gruver said. “It’s going to be great to have the opportunity to feed more people here.”